Agreement reached in disability lawsuit against DHHS

Jake Van Meter smiles during an interview at Penobscot Nursing Home in 2009.
Kevin Bennett | BDN
Jake Van Meter smiles during an interview at Penobscot Nursing Home in 2009.
Posted Sept. 06, 2011, at 7:23 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 08, 2011, at 1:40 p.m.
Eric Reeves (right) makes a joke during an interview at Penobscot Nursing Home in 2009. Reeves and fellow nursing home resident Jake Van Meter sued the state because their only living option is the nursing home.
Kevin Bennett | BDN
Eric Reeves (right) makes a joke during an interview at Penobscot Nursing Home in 2009. Reeves and fellow nursing home resident Jake Van Meter sued the state because their only living option is the nursing home.

BANGOR, Maine — Under the terms of a legal agreement announced Tuesday, the state Department of Health and Human Services will close a loophole that a group of disabled Maine residents says has prevented them from receiving services they need to live productive and independent lives.

The lawsuit, originally brought by three men with physical disabilities but normal mental function, alleged that DHHS, in the Medicaid program known as MaineCare, violated federal law in refusing to pay for support services that would allow the plaintiffs to live in a community setting instead of in nursing homes. The case, filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor in 2009, was granted class-action status earlier this year and grew to include more than 40 members.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs announced the agreement Tuesday.

“Because of the way Maine funds services, the members of the class have had no other choice but to live in nursing homes,” Staci Converse, an attorney with the Disability Rights Center, said in a statement issued Tuesday. “If this agreement is approved by the court, the state will reform the MaineCare program to allow class members to have the choice to live in the community.”

The agreement awaits approval from the court.

The lawsuit alleges that DHHS, in the operation of the MaineCare program, violated the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Nursing Home Reform Act. In addition, plaintiffs claimed that for those who do live in nursing homes, DHHS has not provided federally mandated services that promote independence and community involvement.

“A nursing home is a dependent environment that does not promote a progression toward independence,” said Linda Elliott, the mother of 28-year-old plaintiff Jake Van Meter, who has lived for the past several years at the Cortland Rehabilitation and Living Center in Ellsworth. “You can’t take a young person and put him in the same setting as an 80- or 90-year-old and expect a different outcome.”

Brenda Kielty of the Attorney General’s Office, which represented DHHS in the lawsuit, said the agreement calls for the state to develop a special program for Mainers such as Van Meter who live with cerebral palsy, epilepsy and other similar conditions. The program will provide them with the same level of services — including community integration services — available to Mainers with mental retardation or developmental disabilities, Kielty said.

The fiscal details have not been made final, but most MaineCare services require the state to pay one-third of the cost of providing care while the federal government picks up the rest of the cost.

Van Meter, whose speech is distorted by the muscle spasms that affect the rest of his body, said Tuesday that he hopes to move from Cortland Rehab to an independent apartment in Bangor. Although he needs personal assistance with many of his day-to-day activities, Van Meter said he looks forward to having friends visit him and being able to go wherever he wants to on his own schedule.

Van Meter is close to finishing a associate degree in mental health through the University of Maine at Augusta and is a Reiki practitioner.

CORRECTION:

An early version of this story should have said that Jake Van Meter, a plaintiff in the class action lawsuit against the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, is working on associate degree from the University of Maine at Augusta. Also, Van Meter’s mother’s name was misspelled. Her name is Linda Elliott.

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